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The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian

A review of Quinn Slobodian, 2017. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of
Neoliberalism. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51kcoHzJqyL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgNeoliberalism and globalism have both become buzzwords used within the political discourse by intellectuals, journalists, as much as celebrities in order to describe and explain recent events. But what are really neoliberalism and globalism, and in what relation do they stand to each other? Quinn Slobodian argues in his recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, that neoliberalism and globalism are commensurate concepts, an economic doctrine on the one hand and a political worldview on the other, both mutually reinforcing a particular form of contemporary capitalism. Slobodian puts the notion that neoliberalism lacks a clear referent to rest. Instead, he argues that neoliberalism and globalism have existed as a coherent body of thought since the 1920s. Tracing the origins and consequent development of these ideas, he offers the readers a richer, more precise history of both the idea and practice of neoliberalism-globalism, with particular attention to their relationship with sovereignty and democracy. As such, he provides us with a much needed historical and theoretical corrective to the oft repeated and yet often historically inaccurate theories of neoliberalism.

Donald Trump, who railed against ‘globalism’ on the campaign trail, was elected in 2016 partly on a platform of defying free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. Similarly, we have recently witnessed a proliferation of anti-EU forces from both the left and right in Europe, notably in form of Brexit in the UK and in Italy’s recent elections. Mexico has also recently elected the ‘populist’ Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who threatens to destabilize NAFTA, at least as we know it. These political upheavals against the postwar world order make Globalists a timely and necessary reading for anyone interested in intellectual and economic history.

Central to Slobodian’s argument in Globalists is a rejection of the idea that neoliberalism can simply be reduced to ‘market fundamentalism’, a term central to Karl Polyani’s critique. Rather, Slobodian argues, neoliberalism is a form of regulation, rather than a radical opposition to regulation; it is a form of regulation that seeks to reshape societies to be more favorable to the interests of the market and of the capitalist class, in opposition to democracy and sovereignty if necessary.

Typically, histories of neoliberalism begin somewhere around the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1970s. However, Slobodian traces the history of neoliberalism further back, beginning in Austria in the 1920s with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the House of Hapsburg. During this time of the beginning of the end for the old empires of Europe, Austria held its first election with universal male suffrage, catapulting the radical Social Democratic Party to previously unforeseen influence in the government. Without the autocratic counterweight of the Hapsburg monarchy, conservative Austrian elites feared that their privileges and class power would be undone by the new democratic government. In response, the Austrian nomenklatura, now-infamous names like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises among them, called for a renovation of the capitalist class’s approach to managing power. Their proposed solution was not only intended to the challenge social democracy and the global compounded rise of nationalism, socialism, but also more crucially democratic self-determination. To the capitalist class these forces represented different sides of the same basic threat: the rubes of the world, incapable of governing themselves, turned against their betters. In the words of Lionel Robbins, one of the first ardent globalists, ‘”Mines for miners” and “Papua for Papuans” are analytically similar slogans.’

Contrary to widespread belief, the Austrian School of Economics, as Hayek and Mises’ faction are often called, did not propose a regime of laissez-faire economics as we normally understand it. Rather, they sought to overcome the limitations of the old regime of mercantile colonialism, which divided the world territorially amongst competing camps of European capitalists, through the use of truly global institutions—the League of Nations, the European Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, international investment law, etc. — to insulate markets. Their basic ethos could be summed up as follows: ‘International institutions should act as mechanisms for protecting and furthering competition without offering spaces for popular claims-making’ (p. 271). This, they believed, would protect the profits of the capitalist class against the laws of sovereign states, political instability, and demands raised by civil society and workers for greater equality and social justice. Many leaders of the early neoliberal movement relocated to Geneva in order to influence the shaping of these institutions, leading Slobodian to call them the ‘Geneva School’ (p. 7). The Geneva School was closely tied to business and finance, and its members moved easily between academic settings and lobby organizations such as the International Chamber of Commerce.

The popular (mis)understanding of neoliberalism is perhaps best represented by Karl Polyani’s description of the movement in The Great Transformation, where he uses the term ‘market fundamentalism’ to describe the Geneva School ideology. In this interpretation, neoliberals advocate for ‘disembedded’ markets which, separated from society, replace social bonds with atomized relations, giving rise to counter-reactions within society in the form of either xenophobic nationalism or revolutionary socialism. Slobodian, however, identifies the objective of the Geneva School instead as ‘enclosing’ markets in international institutions and treaties. Far from being fundamentalists with an irrational faith in the market, Hayek and Mises readily accepted that markets are ‘products of the political construction of institutions [which] encase them’ (p.7).

The first economic gathering to take the entire world as its subject was the World Economic Conference of 1927. Famous neoliberals like Mises, Gottfried, Haberler, Röpke, Hayek and the aforementioned Robbins all took a direct role in the conference and the subsequent declaration advocating global economic governance, codifying international opposition to ‘trade obstacles’ on the part of the European elite (p. 30). This is the first attempt documented in Globalists of neoliberals trying to conjure up a supranational federation of capitalists as a way to offset the dual pressures of national economic planning and decolonization.

The wave of independent nation-states rising from the ashes of empire after the world wars prompted greater urgency for such a supranational power. From the perspective of capitalists and their neoliberal lieutenants, these were adversaries to be thwarted. ‘For [Mises]’, writes Slobodian, ‘the real war was not between individual nations or empires but between the world economy and the nation as forms of human organization’ (p.109). It is from this capitalist project of ‘militant globalism’ against ‘economic nationalism’ 01b_wto_interior-(Heilperin, quoted on p. 130) that Slobodian traces the development of entities like the European Union, Free Trade Agreements and the Investor-State Dispute clauses they contain, as well as the World Trade Organization, and the neoliberal intellectuals’ instrumental role in their construction. While these institutions ultimately benefited the elites of the European countries and the United States, they required even the wealthy countries to acquiesce their sovereignty to dictates which spanned multiple sovereign jurisdictions, making them difficult to be challenged by any one government without inviting conflict.

Of particular interest to anthropologists, Slobodian focuses on neoliberal ambassadors’ deep interest in the area of culture. The globalists, from their vantage point in Geneva, left no intellectual or topical stone unturned. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundation, two of the largest funders of ethnographic projects to date, were generous in their support of neoliberal intellectuals seeking to broaden the conceptual scope of their project. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, essentially bankrolled a study by Wilhelm Ropke in the Danube region which lambasted the locals for ‘economic simplism’ for seeking greater authority over their own economy (p. 75). Interestingly, Ropke considered this demand for economic control as a cultural phenomenon and sought to develop methods and instruments to reshape the culture of the Danube to be more accommodating to the global market.

Related imageGlobalists is effective in its ability to lay bare and substantiate with broad source evidence what Slobodian classifies as some basic truths about neoliberal ideology. The book also weaves a convincing narrative about these tenets and their implementation across the modern world. The basic principles Slobodian ascribes to neoliberal globalism are mostly described in negatives. The first is neoliberalism’s aversion to democracy, particularly to democracy that cannot be manipulated or neutered in some way. Slobodian demonstrates this through quotations from neoliberal intellectuals, Mont Perlin Society memos, and internal documents of the European Union, IMF, and other bodies. The second is neoliberalism’s aversion to the nation-state and sovereignty, which binds capitalists by certain obligations which may limit their profits and liquidity, something Mises was particularly adamant about. The third and final, related to the proceeding points, is neoliberal globalism’s resistance to politicization; that states or peoples should have levers by which to regulate or transform their social conditions is the antithesis of the neoliberal project. The neoliberal globe is one without politics, especially without politics that could potentially interrupt the smooth expansion of the market. This may also explain why we can observe an uncanny rise of disturbing pseudo-politics within the last decades.

Neoliberalism as a body of thought and its Geneva School ambassadors have had profound political, economic, and cultural influence on the modern world. Globalists does an excellent job of summarizing and explaining neoliberalism’s development, its core principles, and its direction. It is also a retort to lazy analyses of neoliberalism, which focus solely on aspects of economic policy or reform, and not on the other arenas of human life – culture, politics, international relations, etc. – which the Geneva School has actively and consciously sought to shape, along with Keynesians, imperial bureaucracies, business lobbyists, activists of certain stripes, and a host of other actors. Globalists is a valuable and refreshingly thorough book which clearly defines and scrutinizes the intellectual and practical components of neoliberalism in a manner which is deserving of commendation.

This of Dr. Quinn Slobodian’s most recent book was originally written for and published in the Journal of Extreme Anthropology as part of their forthcoming special issue on SOVEREIGNTY, which you can access here. A pdf of the review is available from the JEA page and on my academia.edu page.

As part of my work maintaining Peripheral Thought, we will soon publish a series of articles on SOVEREIGNTY, in part inspired by and intended to accompany JEA’s release of the special issue on the same topic. 

The suggested citation for this review is:

Lutes, Abram. 2018. “The Geneva Men: A Review of ‘Globalists’ by Quinn Slobodian” in Journal of Extreme Anthropology, Vol. 2, no. 2: Sovereignty.

 

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IMPERIAL DECLINE

Translation: CETA comes into force – a scandal for democracy

This piece by French theorist and political economist Jacques Sapir, originally posted on his blog in French and republished in Italian by Voci Dal L’estero is now featured in English here on Peripheral Thought. Sapir argues that, in addition to the risks to public health and environmental integrity, The Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA) is a serious violation of the principles of national sovereignty and democracy. The translation below has been edited for clarity. 

CETA, a free trade treaty between Canada and the European Union, which finally came into effect on Thursday, September 21, is a striking demonstration of how states have renounced their sovereignty, leaving room for a new law, independent of the law of the states themselves, and not subject to democratic control.

CETA is, on paper, a “free trade treaty”. In reality however, it targets non-tariff regulatory norms that states may adopt, particularly regulations in the field of environmental protection. In this respect, CETA could start start a race to dismantle these protections. Added to this are the dangers deriving from the investment protection mechanism contained in the treaty. CETA creates a protection system for investors between the European Union and Canada, which thanks to the establishment of an arbitration tribunal, will allow them to sue a state (or the European Union) in the case of which a public measure adopted by that State may compromise what the treaty calls the legitimate earnings gains from the investment”. In other words, the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause (or RDIE) is in practice a mechanism for hedging future earnings. And this is a unilateral mechanism: within this framework, no state can, for its part, sue a private enterprise. It is clear therefore that the CETA will put investors in a position to oppose policy measures that are contrary to their interests. This procedure, which is likely to be very expensive for states, will certainly have deterrent effects with a simple process threat. In this respect, let us not forget that following Dow Chemical’s statement of wanting to bring the case to court, Québec was forced to step back on the ban on a substance suspected of being carcinogenic contained in a herbicide marketed by this company.

There are also doubts about reciprocity: it is said that the Treaty opens Canadian markets to European companies, yet the European Union market is already open to Canadian companies. Just look at the disproportion between the populations to understand who will earn what. Beyond this, there is the wider problem of free trade, in particular the interpretation of free trade that emerges from the CETA treaty. At the heart of the treaty are the interests of multinationals, which certainly do not coincide with those of consumers or workers.

The risks represented by CETA therefore concern public health and, without doubt, sovereignty. But even more serious is the threat the treaty poses. At the time of its final vote in the European Parliament, four groups voted against: the Left Front, the environmentalists of ELV, the Socialist Party and the Front National. An alliance perhaps less abnormal than it seems, if one takes into account the problems posed by the treaty. It is instructive to note that it has been rejected by the delegations of three of the five founding countries of the European Economic Community and the second and third largest economies of the Eurozone. Nevertheless, it was ratified by the European Parliament on 15 February 2017, and it is now up to the ratification of individual national parliaments. Nevertheless, it is already considered partially in force before ratification by the national representative bodies. CETA therefore came into force provisionally and partially on 21 September 2017 in regards to aspects concerning the exclusive competence of the EU, with the exclusion for the moment of certain aspects of competing competencies that will need to be voted on by EU member countries , in particular those elements of the treaty dealing with arbitration tribunals and intellectual property. But even despite this, about 90% of the provisions of the agreement are already in force. This is a serious problem of maintaining political democracy. As if this were not enough, even if a country were to tomorrow reject the ratification of CETA, the already in-force aspects of the treaty would still have to remain in effect for another three years.

This is not what is normally understood by the phrase “free trade treaty”. This is a treaty whose purpose is essentially to impose rules adopted by multinationals on individual parliaments of the Member States of the European Union. If one wanted to give  a demonstration of the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the EU, this treaty would act as a pinnacle example.

This poses a challenge to the democratic credentials and legitimacy of those who have been advocating the treaty. In France, only one of the candidates for the presidential election, Emmanuel Macron, had declared openly in favor of CETA. Jean-Marie Cavada, one of the treaty’s main supporters, also voted in the European Parliament for the adoption of the Treaty. Thus, in the presidential election, and not for the first time in French history, the so-called “party from the outside which in a timely fashion had been denounced by Jacques Chirac from the hospital of Cochin for becoming defenders of the establishment. [1]

Prior to his appointment as Edouard Philippe’s government minister, Nicolas Hulot had taken a firm stand against CETA. His stay in government, under these conditions, has produced a turnaround. As a Minister of Environmental Transition, he certainly did not regret some last Friday morning on Europe 1. He acknowledged that the evaluation commission appointed by Edouard Philippe in July picked out several potential dangers contained in the treaty. But he also added: Negotiations have now come to such a point that unless we risk a diplomatic incident with Canada, which we would certainly want to avoid at all costs, it would have been difficult to block ratification”. This is a perfect description of the irreversibility [sic] mechanisms deliberately incorporated in the treaty. Let us not forget, too, that before being appointed Minister of Environmental Transition, the former television presenter had repeatedly stated that CETA was  not compatible with the climate”. One can imagine how hard that sword was to swallow.

For his part, since his election, Emmanuel Macron has tried to present himself as defender of the planet, answering Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” with his own “Make the Planet Great Again “. He has often reiterated this slogan, both at the United Nations and on his trip to the Antilles after Hurricane Irma. But it can not be ignored that his commitment to CETA and its submission to the European Union environmental rules, which still has delayed on the issue of endocrine disrupters, show that his actions are not ecologically motivated and gestures towards environmental issues are best distasteful public relations performances.

We must have a full awareness of what the application and implementation of CETA means, including the dangers it poses as the national sovereignty, democracy and security of the country.

[1] Haegel F., “Mémoire, héritage, filiation: Dire le gaullisme et se dire gaulliste à RPR”, Revue française de science politique, vol. 40, no. 6, 1990, p. 875

Jacques SapirJaques Sapir is a graduate of the IEPP in 1976, he supported a postgraduate doctorate on the organization of work in the USSR between 1920 and 1940 (EHESS, 1980) and a Ph.D. in economics, Soviet economy (Paris-X, 1986).  He taught macroeconomics and finance at the University of Paris-X Nanterre from 1982 to 1990, and at ENSAE (1989-1996) before joining the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences in 1990. He has been the Director of Studies since 1996 and heads the Center for the Study of Modes of Industrialization (CEMI-EHESS). He has also taught in Russia at the High College of Economics (1993-2000) and at the Moscow School of Economics since 2005.He leads the IRSES research group at the FMSH, where he co-organizes with the Institute of National Economic Forecasting (IPEN-ASR) the Franco-Russian seminar on the financial and monetary problems of development in Russia.